Life on a string:Myrna Herzog

Raised as a Catholic, converting to Judaism and making aliya, Brazilian-born violist Myrna Herzog enthralls Israeli audiences with the sounds of early music.

Herzog 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herzog 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The new season of the Phoenix ensemble finds the early music group, and its musical directorconductor- soloist Myrna Herzog spreading their wings far and wide.
Still, considering her cultural background that is perfectly natural for 58 year old Brazilian-born Herzog who also takes care of cello and viola de gamba duties in the ensemble.
The season’s first installment – Beethoven in Scotland - fittingly kicked off at the Scottish Church in Tiberias on Friday, and continues this evening at Tel Aviv’s Blumenthal Center (8:30 p.m.), with further concerts at Studio Hecht in Haifa on Thursday (8:30 p.m.) and at the Eden-Tamir Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Mixing and matching cultural baggage come naturally for Herzog. She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, speaking Portuguese and French, with a Jewish Polish-born Holocaust survivor father, a Catholic Belgian-born mother and her maternal grandparents.
Herzog views her early cultural and religious spread as a boon that has had a positive effect on her life and career to date. “I have had luck in my life. Until I was 5 years old, I lived with my maternal grandparents. My father was a Jewish-born atheist, and my mother was a devout Catholic, as were her parents, and we all lived together and loved each other. That, for me, taught me the most important lesson in life – that love has no frontiers and you can always find what brings you close to the other person, rather than what separates you from others. I love working with people from other cultures. We all bring our own colors and my task is to make everyone shine.”
The current program certainly culls from wide cultural territory.
Violinist Yasuko Hirata is Japanese, pianist Alex Rosenblatt is Russian born and soprano vocalist Karin Shifrin comes from this neck of the woods.
“I want the people I play with to express themselves as the individuals they are, not as clones of me, or as something they are not. That makes it more natural, for the players and for the audience as well.”
Beethoven in Scotland is an intriguing and highly entertaining program based on Scottish songs arranged by Beethoven for voice and piano trio, at the behest of Scots publisher George Thomson, in the early nineteenth century. Herzog seess a strong common denominator between the repertoire and the history of the Jewish people. “The songs were based on poems that came from the Highlands area of Scotland. The Highlanders were a sort of diaspora after 1745, when they rebelled against the invading English. We Jews have always had our own Diaspora.”
IN FACT, Herzog herself was born into a non-Jewish home. “When my parents married my mother insisted that the children be brought up as Catholics, and that didn’t bother my father.” However, when she was a teenager, Herzog rebelled and sought out her Jewish roots.
“I went to a Catholic school and the Bible teacher said that anyone who wasn’t a Christian would go to hell. My father had been through the hell of the Holocaust and I didn’t think he should go through another one.” With that epiphany Herzog started immersing herself in Judaism and eventually completed her conversion.”
It was also around this time that she started getting serious about music. “I’d played piano and guitar, but I’d lapsed. I had a friend who said I just had to play an instrument and that he would teach me to play recorder. But I was drawn to strings.”
Today Herzog alternates between viola de gamba and cello, and she plays the latter in the Beethoven in Scotland series. She says the two instruments allow her to express very different facets of her personality, besides her musicianship. “The gamba is sensitive and the cello is much stronger and forceful. When I play Beethoven and there is a cheerful passage, one voice comes from the gamba and says ‘don’t do it’, the other – the cello says ‘risk it’. There is always risk in art and in life, and you have to go for it.”
Herzog literally lives for danger.
“Challenges keep you alive. As you get older I think you realize how little you know. That keeps you young. I am happy that I dare to play music like this. It makes life worthwhile.
This series is a wonderful way of seeing what I want to do.”
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